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El mago (1949)
The magic of Comedy!
Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin, is a lazy administration at a lookalike agency. When a weary spiritualist (referred to throughout as "a magician") wants to take a holiday without abandoning his regular customers, he hires a double from the agency. However, the double gets spooked when gangsters show up at the spiritualist's temple, but he somehow manages to sucker the hapless Cantinflas into taking his place.
Meanwhile, it turns out "the magician" really is from the mysterious east, and is the rightful ruler of the kingdom of Arichi, following the death of his father. A group of missionaries are sent out to find him, but they of course pick up the clueless Cantinflas instead. To add to the intrigue, one of the missionaries is actually a traitor who supports the late king's brother, and intends to finish off the true heir. Add the mob (who want to use the spiritualist's skills in their crimes) and a gold digging temptress (Leonora Amar), and hilarity soon ensues...
The comedy relies heavily on fish-out-of water antics, as the classless Cantinflas presides over his cringing subjects and makes nonsensical comments to the international media. He comically fawns after the beautiful Amar, and a drink with the mob ends in chaos.
Cantinflas' comedies are always worth a watch (if you understand Spanish or can find a subtitled version), and 'El Mago' is no exception. As usual, it's the charisma of the star that is the main drawing point, but there's also a madcap creativity behind his films that put them at least on par with many contemporary American comedies. The fantasy elements are minimal though, pretty much amounting to the real magician's fortune telling abilities not actually being discredited – but that's not really surprising since he's not in it much.
El supersabio (1948)
The Science of Comedy
Cantinflas, The Mexican Charlie Chaplin, returns as the assistant to a great scientist in another rip-roaring comedy. The old professor (Carlos Martínez Baena) is seeking a formula to convert seawater into gasoline (which he's named "Carburex"). Of course there are numerous parties interesting in the formula, including a bogus doctor who steals discoveries, the ruthless family with whom the professor lives, the cold-hearted investor funding the experiments, and the Petroleum Co., who will literally turn to murder to stop Carburex seeing the light of day.
Of course, our friend Cantinflas becomes the target of all these sinister types (they believe he has the Carbulex formula), but all he wants to do is create a formula to prolong the life of flowers, and woo beautiful journalist Perla Aguiar. After surviving various assassination attempts, he's eventually taken to court for the film's lengthy – but funny – conclusion.
The two MacGuffins add a slight sci-fi premise to proceedings, but, obviously, this is foremost a comedy, and a good one too. It's not quite up there with 'One Day with the Devil', but not miles behind either. The comedy is mainly situation based, so translates well for English-speaking audiences, although there is some of the old nonsensical Cantinflas chattering, which obviously loses effect in translation. Still, there's enough entertainment here to make you question why Cantinflas films are relatively unknown outside of Spanish-speaking countries (he still makes around $4m a year for Columbia in overseas DVD sales).
Un día con el diablo (1945)
War is Hell... but very funny.
'Día Con el Diablo' ('One Day with the Devil') was a vehicle for the comedic talents of Mexican star Cantinflas, who was proclaimed by none other than Charlie Chaplin himself as "the world's greatest comedian". He's probably best know in America for playing Passepartout in the 1956 version of 'Around the World in 80 Days', despite being known as the world's highest paid comedian, reportedly earning in excess of $1.5m a year in the late 1950s. He's at the height of his powers here, carrying this entire film with his physical comedy and rambling monologues.
This really is a surprisingly entertaining movie; surprising because it's had so little exposure outside of Mexico. During an unspecified war (not WWII, as this war doesn't last very long, although it does seem to be against the Japanese) Cantinflas (playing an unnamed character) is mistaken for a deserter. Our untrained hero is forced into the army and eventually sent off to war. There are shades of 'Sgt. Bilko' and even 'Blackadder Goes Forth' as he tries every trick in the book to dodge death on a daily basis.
The fantasy elements all take place in the final third of the film. They involved a meeting with St. Peter and the 1,100 virgins in Heaven and an emotional meeting with Satan in Hell. These were of course, very apt spoofs at the time, as cinema-goers were inundated with these types of fantasy films in the mid 1940s, mainly coming from Hollywood of course.
You may struggle to find this film, particularly with English subtitles, but if you get the chance, see it. Not all the jokes transfer to English perfectly but the humour that does transfer is as funny as anything made at the time. Highly recommended.
Bílá nemoc (1937)
A cure for war?
Czech Hugo Haas made a lot of overblown, trashy dramas in America in the 1950s (see 'Edge of Hell', 'Bait' and 'Hold Back Tomorrow') but back in the 1930s, he was a very well-respected actor/director/writer in Europe. 'Bílá nemoc' is a classic example of the work that led to Haas' high reputation, a thought-provoking, political/science fiction drama.
In an unnamed country (which is led by a warmongering Marshal) a disease, which only affects the over 50s, begins to spread. While the government-financed clinics fail to find an answer, backstreet GP Dr. Galen (played by Haas) discovers a cure.
After proving the cure's authenticity, Dr. Galen informs the press that he will treat the poor immediately but will only treat the rich if the Marshall, who is about to declare war on a neighbouring country, signs a peace treaty. Naturally, the Marshal refuses to accept the conditions and sends his men to bring the good doctor to him
Although obviously an anti-war film (released just a couple of years before WWII), the characters are not simply black and white. Dr. Galen, who is a pacifist, actually stands by and lets people die to stand by his threat. The Marshal on the other hand, doesn't act as ruthless as you may expect - for instance he never threatens to torture Galen to obtain the cure and actually does eventually release him. Both characters are given interesting, believable background stories and justifications for their very different outlooks on life.
An intelligent film which is charmingly naive in many respects, simply for asking for normality in a mad world.
The Avenging Hand (1936)
American-style whodunit - made in England!
Don't let the misleading title fool you into thinking this is a horror movie or even in an old-dark-house mystery - it's actually a rather light-hearted whodunnit in a hotel. On New Year's Eve, a guest who has recently come into money is murdered (initially diagnosed as suicide) and a vacationing American gangster (Noah Beery) turns detective to solve the case.
The murder comes well over the halfway mark but there's plenty of interesting characters and American-style fast-talk humour to keep you entertained before then. Surprisingly pacey for a 1930s British film and quite entertaining, even if it's far from ground-breaking. It's available for download for free at the Internet Movie Archive.
Gibel sensatsii (1935)
Power to the Robots!
Jim Ripl (Sergei Vecheslov, who looks like Conrad Veidt), an engineer at a military industrial establishment, is accused by his fellow workers of being a traitor after he invents a child-sized robot capable of fulfilling almost any task. Although Ripl sees the creation as being beneficial to the worker, the workers themselves fear that robots will make their very existence redundant and destroy the little bot.
Six months later, Ripl is on the other side, unveiling an army of eight- foot high robots to the capitalist leaders of the establishment. Ripl still hopes to win his former colleagues over with his creations, but the leaders have different ideas
This is a typically political Soviet sci-fi in which the invention of the robot is seen as taking the very purpose of the working classes away. It's surprising that, in an era in which the automation was still a work of fiction, there were such serious fears concerning the repercussions of replacing men with robots in the work place.
Naturally, this being the Communist Soviet Union, the whole thing is seen from the worker's perspective, with leadership figures seen as brutal and callous. From the very first shot, we see images of the working class sleeping in the streets and queuing at homeless shelters – and this is before the robots put them out of work!
This is a very bizarre film, and at time pretty amateurish. The robots don't look as bad as some of those in serials from around the same time, and the acting is adequate, but the direction is slack and cinematography is quite raw.
At least twice, the political ponderings are broken by musical numbers in a night club! And on the subject of music, Ripl uses a unique method of remote control for the robots here: a whistle and a saxophone! Fans of action though will be glad to know it's not all just class war dialogue, as the robots go crazy during the climax, killing and crushing anyone who gets in their way.
While this isn't exactly a forgotten classic, it's pretty unique and a worthy novelty for its historical, political and technical standing. Just don't expect it to come out on DVD any time soon!
La maldición de Nostradamus (1961)
A little tale of the prophetic murderous vampiring son of Nostradamus
A Mexican serial, 'La maldición de Nostradamus', was shown in cinemas in 12 25-minute episodes during 1959-60. Never one to miss an opportunity in exporting cheap, badly-dubbed Mexican fare to US shores, producer K. Gordon Murray - he of 'Santa Claus' (1959) fame – edited the series into four separate movies in order to fleece four separate audiences.
The films became 'Curse of Nostradamus', 'Monsters Demolisher' (sic), 'Genii of Darkness' and 'Blood of Nostradamus'. As so much of the first film is plot establishment, it's difficult watching the sequels without seeing this first entry.
The son of Nostradamus (Germán Robles) is a vampire who wants to clear the reputation of his esteem father. In case you're unaware, one thing that history tells us about Nostradamus is that he was a hated villain. Well, according to this film anyway.
In order to clear daddy's rep, junior attempts to get the head of The Society to Abolish Superstitions (!!!), Prof. Duran (Domingo Soler) to publicly restore Nostradamus' good-standing, and while he's at it, to admit that vampires do exist.
Naturally, this doesn't go now with a man who spends his days trying to discredit fear of the unproven, so he refuses. Nostradamus Jr. then promises to commit various murders and crimes until the Professor yields. The Prof instead sets out, with good friend Julio Alemán to bring the vampire and his hunchback servant down.
Not only is Junior a bloodsucker, he has also inherited his father's gift, meaning his vengeful prophecies often include elements that haven't happen yet. An amusing example of this is the predicted death of a police office, before he becomes a police officer. I say amusing, because one day the guy is unemployed, the next, he is a police officer on a covert operation! Yessss.
There is a great idea here – a killer with the ability to predict events before they happen. However, making the killer a vampire seems a little redundant, and comes across as an attempt to cash in on the Mexican hits like 'The Vampire' (1957) and 'The Vampire's Coffin' (1958).
Of course, any promising material that isn't ruined by director Federico Curiel is left for Murray to wreck, with bad dubbing and editing. Obviously it's best to see the original Mexican serial, but good luck with finding that. It's as rare as prophetic vampire bat droppings.
If you do opt for the films, make sure you watch them in the right order. They do follow on directly from each other. The correct order is as listed in the second paragraph of this review.
Mystery Train (1991)
The series that triggered my passion for cult films and TV!
OK, so I'd been watching classic horror and particularly sci-fi films for as long as I can remember, but this, along with the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and the 1982 film 'It Came from Hollywood' got me into the cheesy side of Hollywood film and introduced me to the TV series that remains one of my all-time favourites.
It was shown on BBC 2 and started in October 1991 and ran for 10 consecutive weeks up until Christmas. I watched every episode. In fact, I'd go as far as to say this was the highlight of my viewing week while it ran.
The show was presented by Richard ('Rocky Horror Picture Show') O'Brien, who dressed in a long black coat and fedora. It was set in a dark, deserted subway with plastic mannequins dotted around.
The memorable opening sequence featured O'Brien running through the sinister subway. On arriving at the train doors, the words 'Mind the Doors' were announced over the Tannoy system, before O'Brien would turn around to reveal a skeletal face (the sequence was probably inspired by the end of 'Dr. Terror's House of Horrors').
O'Brien would ramble on for a bit, usually talking in metaphor about something loosely linked to the next item. First up was always an episode of the classic 'Kolchak: The Night Stalker', a series I can't possibly recommend more. The ten episodes featured were mostly from the first ten to originally air (although not in the same order), but the 'The Sentry', the last ever episode of Kolchak, was shown in the last edition.
Between episodes of Kolchak and the main feature, O'Brien would introduce a couple of weird and wacky animations. The most memorable were '25 ways to quit smoking' and 'Dimensions of Dialogue' (which included two heads doing horrible things to each other), which were quite amusing. In fairness though, I saw these as an intermission and would pop out to make a cup of tea.
Finally, O'Brien would introduce the main event, a cult classic from the 1950s. These included such sci-fi greats as 'Invasion of the Saucer Men', 'Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman' and 'I was a Teenage Werewolf' but also included the legendary teen flicks 'The Cool and the Crazy' and 'The Dragstrip Girl', all of which I had my first exposure to here! I became hooked on cult films forever after seeing these.
As 1992 came round, I hoped that 'Mystery Train' would return with more cult classics and the rest of Kolchak. Sadly, it never happened. Really disappointing, as I thought this show was great (out of interest, the final ten episodes of Kolchak were shown on the same channel in early 1992).
A little anecdote to finish on – this series almost killed me! The fuse of my TV went during the screening of 'The Undead'. I changed the fuse but, in my desperation to get back to watching it, I stupidly put the plug back into the wall without replacing the back cover of the plug! Result – I was blasted across the room! After flattening my hair back down, I resorted to watching the rest of the episode on a portable. The desperate lengths we went to before the internet and catch-up TV!
Unheimliche Geschichten (1932)
A forgotten "spoof" worth seeking out
Paul Wegener, in his first talkie film, plays an evil inventor who is pursued by investigative journalist (Harald Paulsen) through four famous horror tales. The first is based on Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Black Cat'. Wegener kills his wife and hides her behind a wall in his basement. The reporter, who hears the wife's screams as he is passing by, calls in the police days later after she is reported missing. The journalist and the police eventually find her body thanks to her meowing cat, which was also accidentally walled with the body.
The inventor escapes, only to hide in a wax museum (spoofing Paul Leni's 'Waxworks'), where a sinister game of cat and mouse develops. The chase soon moves to an asylum (taken from another Poe story, 'The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether') and later, to a strange gentlemen's club which runs a sinister suicide game (from Robert Lewis Stevenson's 'The Suicide Club').
This is a remake of the director's own 'Eerie Tales' (1919), which also included adaptations of 'The Black Cat' and 'The Suicide Club'. All three stories here have been filmed since as well - 'Tales of Terror' (1962), 'Curse of the Stone Hand' (1964) and 'Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon' (1973) stand out as examples – so this may all feel quite familiar. Despite this, it's still very entertaining.
The novel approach of linking the separate well-known short stories into one adds a new dimension to the horror anthology sub-genre. It's intended as a spoof of Germany Expressionism, but while it may not exactly have your sides splitting, it still works as a creepy, atmospheric melodrama.
It's always fun to see Wegener, whose three silent portrayals of the Golem have ensure his place in horror history. He's great here as the villain; his stony face and narrow eyes make him appear every bit the devious killer. The rest of the less well-known cast do well too.
Austrian Director Oswald, who is accredited with directing the first vampire film in 1916 ('A Night of Horror' - now lost), does a fine job of creating a different atmosphere for each story. Of particular note is the 'Dr. Tarr' segment, in which a whole host of lunatics attempt to put our hero on trial.
This is a very difficult film to find which is a real shame. Highly recommended for fans of early horror.
Service de Luxe (1938)
"Did you know insanity runs in my family?"
Since Thriller seems to be played every five minutes on the radio following the death of Michael Jackson, I've found myself lecturing the kids about the wonderful, 55-year career of the legendary Vincent Price.
Well here's where that wonderful career began - the male lead in his debut feature! His role here couldn't be any further removed from the genre he's famous for. This romantic screwball comedy sees Price play the heart-throb hero(?!) opposite comedy actress Constance Bennett (who, incidentally, my mother was named after).
Helen Murphy (Bennett) runs the titular service which caters for the every need of its customers, from meals to shopping, finances to social arrangements. Constance is sick of running around after men (her main customers) and seeks an independent, self-sufficient partner.
She meets one in the form of Robert Wade (Price) who, after a case of mistaken identity (have you ever seen a 30s comedy in which this didn't happen?), treats her like a real woman. Unfortunately, Murphy's business-like lifestyle clashes with Wade's vision of the ideal woman - a homely child-bearer who lets the man pay for everything.
So Murphy lies and hides the truth of her real occupation - with hilarious consequences. Naturally Wade hates Murphy's service (remember, he doesn't know she's behind it!) which he finds unnecessary intrusive. This of course causes Murphy to perpetuate the deceit.
There's plenty of madcap behaviour as Wade's now antiquated views of women force Murphy to use underhanded tactics to win his heart. Bennett is great as always and Price is also very good, although no Cary Grant. There's also a supporting cast of zany characters including Mischa Auer (mad Russian chef who constantly consults his spirit guide), Charles Ruggles (eccentric old businessman) and Helen Broderick (dumb romantic dreamer).
The comedy is often predictable as Wade sets about selling his new innovative tractor idea and gets himself accidentally engaged to the wrong person. However, it's all very likable and sweet and makes for a perfect afternoon matinée.
Considering Price makes his feature film debut here, it is amazing to see how comfortable he is and how consistent his look and persona are with later roles. The ever-present 'tache is obviously on show, as is that slight southern twang and dignified manner. To be fair, the 27-year old Price looks exactly here as he does in 'The House on Haunted Hill' – 20 years later! And there's an interesting scene in which Price jokingly talks about madness in his family, as he slowly and menacingly advances towards his finance – an eerie forecast of things to come
Robot Monster (1953)
The last family on Earth have to contend with man-eating dinosaurs, a food shortage, and a space helmet-wearing gorilla from outer-space who wants them dead!
Fans of bad movies probably know all about this film. However, if you haven't had the pleasure of experiencing this infamous laugh-riot, allow me to explain...
The film opens with an arrangement of Sci-fi pulp magazines behind the opening credits, so you're obviously expected to throw your common sense radar switch firmly to the off position before viewing commences. Then we're introduced to a family, for some reason having a picnic in a quarry.
The young boy takes a tumble, and when he recovers, he finds Ro-man, conquerer of Earth and destroyer of mankind, hiding in a cave.
Ro-man. Now how would you describe Ro-man? How about a man (George Barrows) in a gorilla suit, probably left over from the forties, wearing an old-fashioned diving helmet with the visor blacked out, and a TV ariel sticking out of the top of his head? There are many legends of course about director Phil Tucker running out of cash and, unable to finish off the spacesuit, simply used an old leftover Gorilla custom. Let's face it however, would 'Robot Monster' be the cult favourite it is today if he had found the funds to finish the costume?
We discover the truth soon after our first encounter with Ro-Man; that Earth was attacked by the alien simian, who wiped out all but eight members of the population. We know this because Ro-Man's gleefully reveals the plot to his superior - 'The Great One' (also George Barrows in the same costume) - over a super hi-tech communications device. I write hi-tech communications device, but what what I actually mean is an old 1940s radio on a wooden table attached to a bubble-making machine.
Somehow, in the aftermath of Ro-man's destructive rampage, prehistoric creatures were unleashed (yes, it's the old 'One Million B.C.' (1940) footage reeled out for about the 1,500th time; and there's even footage from the antiquated 'Lost World' of 1925!). Thankfully, our poor family are helped in their struggle to survive by their doctor friend and his anti-everything serum, which protect them from Ro-man's deadly Calcinator Ray.
If you think this all sounds rather childish, well you're right, but this is fused with some quite unexpected adult themes. Ro-man murders the doc's child daughter, and then plans to mate with her older sister. You'd think that the intelligent and beautiful heroine of the piece (Claudia Barrett) would shudder from this evil, and probably smelly, beast, but she doesn't exactly shun him, even remarking 'Oh Ro-Man, you're so strong' as he drags her across the barren wastes to his cave.
Despite all this, 'Robot Monster' does seem to drag a little in the middle (not an easy accomplishment for a film only just over a hour long!), especially after the novelty of old fish-tank head wears thin. But if you love/like/can tolerate bad movies, you really do owe it to yourself to see this; it lacks quality of any kind.